John Snow and his House

In 2008, the Clouds ‘n’ Water Gallery and Visual Production Society was generously offered the use of John Snow House, located at 915 18 Avenue SW in Calgary. Below you can read the story of the man and the house that now bears his name.

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Dr. John Harold Thomas Snow (1911 – 2004) LL.D (Hon), R.C.A., A.S.A., was an important contributor to the arts in Calgary. Born in Vancouver, Snow and his family moved to England prior to the First World War.  He returned to Canada in 1919, and in 1928 embarked upon a long and successful career as a banker with the Royal Bank of Canada.  Following service as a navigator with the RAF and RCAF during the Second World War, Snow began studying at the Provincial Institute of Technology and Art (now the Alberta College of Art and Design), which was at the time located in Coste House. It was there that Snow met numerous distinguished members of Alberta’s art community, including Maxwell Bates (1906 – 1980), a man who would become Snow’s lifelong friend and collaborator.

In 1953—two years after Snow purchased the house now named after him—Bates and Snow salvaged a press and some lithographic stones from a commercial printer who was no longer using them. They installed the press in Snow’s basement, and began the process of teaching themselves lithography through experimentation, books, and the guidance of commercial printers. A press remains in the basement to this day, although it does not appear to be one of the salvaged presses.

Snow was widely regarded as a master printer. In addition to creating his own work, he printed images for other artists, including Bates, Illingworth Kerr, W. L. L. Stevenson, and Peter Daglish. His willingness to work with other artists seems to have extended into his banking career: it is rumoured that Snow never turned down a loan to a needy artist.

Snow married Kathleen (Kay) Allen (1918-1995) in 1963. As a couple, their impact on the arts in Calgary was significant. In addition to creating a sense of community by hosting dinners for their artist friends, Kathleen—a teacher and librarian—wrote Maxwell Bates : biography of an artist (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 1993). Snow and his friend, Quenten Doolittle, also contributed to the arts in Calgary by co-founding New Works, a non-profit society dedicated to the creation of contemporary classical music.

While Snow is perhaps best known for his prints—especially his lithographs and woodcuts—he also created paintings and sculptures. Two of his sculptures are currently located on the property. His work, which is often more concerned with colour than with three-dimensional forms, is seen as part of an important move toward modernism in Alberta. His prints, paintings and sculptures are held in numerous collections, including the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, the Art Gallery of Alberta, the Glenbow Museum, the Nickle Arts Museum, and the National Gallery of Canada, among others. In 1996, Snow’s significant achievements were recognized when he was appointed to the Alberta Order of Excellence.

Snow’s colleague, Max Bates, is also widely recognized as a key figure in art.  A pioneer of abstraction and expressionism in Canada, Bates was also an architect who designed Calgary’s St. Mary’s Cathedral, among other buildings. In 1959-61, he designed the studio addition to John Snow House. Although the Alberta Register of Historic Places describes the addition as “unremarkable, incorporating materials and a style common to vernacular architecture,” it should be noted that the studio was customized for Snow.   The lofty ceiling and windows on the east side allow for lots of light, while the solid west wall provides a large surface for displaying work. The window on the west side of the south wall was designed to be reminiscent of a church window, while the niche on the east side of the wall was designed specifically for a sculpture owned by John Snow. The studio, where Snow produced much of his work, currently acts as a physical reminder of the house’s significant former resident.

The house also reflects development of the Mount Royal community by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While the CPR decided to establish the hilly area just south of John Snow House as an elite and luxurious neighbourhood—complete with large lots positioned to take advantage of the view and streets designed around contours of the land—the area below was designated as working class housing. John Snow House is a typical example of this type of architecture, and forms a section of a partially intact historic streetscape in Lower Mount Royal.

Initially built in 1912 for Charles P. McCallum of Armstrong and McCallum, a real estate and investment firm, the house was held by numerous other people until it was purchased by Snow in 1951. Following his death, publisher and philanthropist Jackie Flanagan purchased the home and used it as the residence of authors involved in the University of Calgary’s Markin-Flanagan Distinguished Writers Program. Several notable authors, including Timothy Findley, Michael Ondaatje, and Robert Kroetsch, stayed in the house as part of the program.

Today, John Snow House is administered by The New Gallery. As of November 2010, TNG has officially opened their Resource Centre (a combined library and archive) in the house. The house is also available for community events and home to an artist-in-residency program.